Communal commitment

At the behest of a much-maligned generation, our Best Companies increasingly involve their employees in community causes.

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Five years ago, when interviewing our Executive Hall of Fame Class of 2010, American Family Insurance’s David Anderson explained why, under his direction, American Family was so involved in the community.

His answer was that building a stronger community is done for the benefit of employees, and when you think about it a big piece to solving the “brain drain” puzzle is to build the kind of community people naturally gravitate to.

There are many reasons our 2016 Best Companies scored highly on our benefits-oriented questionnaire, but one of the most overlooked is how and how much they encourage employees to be involved in the community. Whether it’s eight or 16 hours annually of paid time off to support a cause of their choice, or more of a company-wide approach that involves employee collaboration, our Best Companies promote giving back.

Charity is a particular expectation of younger professionals, both Gen Xers and the increasingly disparaged millennials. For those of you who dread what the country is coming to, take solace in the fact that younger members of the workforce are leveraging their power to demand such opportunities of would-be employers — much to the delight of workaholic baby boomers. Also note that truly Best Companies now include this communal commitment in their own hiring specifications and openly talk about their preference for it in job interviews.

Due to the vital importance of employee retention and attraction, not to mention engagement and commitment, we base our Best Companies questionnaire on the employee benefits package. As always, the questionnaire underwent some tweaking as we added a new section on diversity and inclusion. We’d like to report more progress in this area, but the concept has yet to gain the necessary momentum in south-central Wisconsin. Hopefully, future Best Companies presentations will bring better, more progressive news on D&I.

In this presentation, we interview Best Company winners in each of three size categories to explore their unique approaches to community engagement.

2016 Winners and Finalists

Large Company (200+ employees) Medium Company (50–199 employees) Small Company (1–49 employees)
Winner: Exact Sciences Winner: Roche Sequencing Solutions Madison Winner: Terso Solutions
Finalists: Madison College; UW Hospitals and Clinics; TDS Telecom Finalists: TeamSoft Inc.; Raven Software; Mead & Hunt Finalists: OPN Architects Inc.; Settlers bank; Meicher CPAs LLP


Large Company Winner

Exact Sciences

With a very stunning disappointment that sunk its project at Judge Doyle Square, it’s easy to forget that Exact Sciences Corp. is growing its workforce by leaps and bounds. The robust sale of Cologuard, its non-invasive test for colorectal cancer, is the main reason, but don’t underestimate company culture.

Several years ago, when Exact Sciences first chose to restart in Madison, it wanted to impact the community through employee engagement and the principal way it chose to do so was through the United Way of Dane County. Employees became involved in the United Way’s annual campaign and volunteered for programs such as the Schools of Hope, the Days of Caring, and the Business Volunteer Network, where they could devote time to causes such as fighting poverty or promoting childhood literacy.

Kevin Conroy, chairman and CEO, says the company wanted to hire people who would be attracted to this commitment, but the organization also offers employers eight hours of paid time off annually to champion their own causes. The PTO, which employees can take in increments or all at once, has benefited organizations such as Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Dane County and local food banks and schools.

“This is very personal, so you get to pick the cause you care about,” Conroy says. “We think it’s an opportunity to energize our workforce because the company didn’t want to play Big Brother and say that our only focus was United Way.”

Exact Sciences completed more than 100,000 of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved Cologuard tests in 2015, with more orders on the way after the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services recently affirmed that Medicare Advantage insurance plans should include coverage of Cologuard every three years without patient coinsurance, copayments, or deductibles.

The company spent the better part of the past year growing its staff by 400 to meet anticipated demand. Meanwhile, more than 60% of its research and development staff are graduates of the University of Wisconsin System, and its ongoing work to develop cancer-screening products for pancreatic, esophageal, and lung cancer hold the promise of additional workforce growth.

Conroy says that in surveys about levels of employee engagement, Exact Sciences scores well above the national average of 35%, with many companies scoring well below that mark. He gives much of the credit to his millennial workers who place a great deal of value on such cultural considerations.

“If they know that leadership and employers care about people and causes outside of the four walls of the company, it makes them more engaged when they are at work,” he notes.



Medium Company Winner

Roche Sequencing Solutions Madison

What do an African train, Second Harvest Foodbank Madison, and the University of Wisconsin–Madison Arboretum have in common? They are all philanthropic or community-building thrusts of Roche Sequencing Solutions Madison (formerly Roche NimbleGen).

Rebecca Selzer, president and CEO of the Madison genomic sequencing company, notes that the aforementioned train, the Transnet Phelophepa, is not just any train. It’s really a rolling, 18-coach medical clinic owned and operated by Transnet Limited, which is South Africa’s largest state-owned freight transportation company. The train and its younger brother, Phelophepa II, are supported by the entire 90,000-employee strong Roche global organization, and the company’s sponsorship is perfectly aligned with its health care mission.

Phelophepa means good, clean health, and that’s what both versions seek to deliver as they bring to rural African communities the facilities to conduct primary health, dental, and eye checks and provide treatments for any diagnosed conditions. Each local Roche location, including Madison, holds fundraising events to support the trains and local nonprofits that serve the cause of children’s health.

At the Madison location, employees take part in the Roche Children’s Walk, which raises money for the health care clinic on wheels and for American Family Children’s Hospital. “We have a walking path through the university research park,” Selzer notes. “The people who participate all walk it together and so you’ll see people with Roche T-shirts walking through the path.”

The path to local philanthropy begins with employee groups who annually choose one charity and one environmental cause for Roche employees to support. Roche offers eight hours of paid volunteer time, and for the past two years the company’s Adventure Club has coordinated half-day site events at Second Harvest Foodbank, which relies on volunteers to sort food donations. Roche’s environmental group coordinates a half day of weeding and other spruce-up work at the UW Arboretum.

Throughout the year, employees suggest miscellaneous things such as entering a team in Carbone’s Race for Research 5K Run/Walk or having Roche scientists visit local high school science classes. The company believes a community-supporting culture is a vital part of successful workforce recruitment and retention. “It’s definitely making an impact on retention,” Selzer says. “Employees really appreciate the social outreach because it’s important to them, particularly those who go to work for a health care company.”

Michelle Venturini, director of human resources and Site SHE (safety, health, and environmental) Officer, says community engagement gets people’s attention in a job interview. “If everything else is equal, it might tip the scales,” she states. “I can’t say it’s a deal breaker, but it definitely gets a candidate’s attention and interest.”

Small Company Winner

Terso Solutions

Joe Pleshek, president and CEO of Terso Solutions, is fully aware of the expectations employees have for community engagement, which is why Terso is flexible enough to accommodate different levels and types of engagement.

Such contributions, he notes, vary according to your time of life. A young, single worker has more time to get involved with the broader community than parents whose focus naturally turns to their children’s activities until they become empty nesters and can rediscover the joys of broader engagement.

“There is an expectation, increasingly with employees both new and existing, to do more for the community and for families,” Pleshek says. “The key there for individual employees is flexible time. We’re very flexible with our work hours in terms of volunteering at school. A lot of our employees are parents who are taking time off to help out in their children’s schools.”

Pleshek acknowledges that since most of his employee base is salaried, Terso Solutions is in a better position to be flexible as long as the work gets done. “We’re not in the process of counting hours, so it’s more about are you getting the job done? More broadly, we have an expectation as a company that employees are doing things and giving back. We don’t have a specific policy that says we offer eight hours of PTO and you should use those, it’s more of a flexible approach to encouraging people to be involved.”

When they are not working on RFID-enabled inventory-management products for scientific and health care customers, Terso employees volunteer for organizations such as Second Harvest Foodbank, the Underground Pet Rescue organization, and Habitat for Humanity of Dane County.

Whether the cause is company sponsored or an individual interest, the effort usually is employee driven. That’s fine with Pleshek because the above activities contribute to the core value of energy. “We know that bringing a positive energy to work every day really evolves from a balance between the work that we do, our families, and the community,” he explains. “If you have those things in balance in your life, typically you’re going to have energy to bring to your role here at Terso, so that’s where we really push the idea of community involvement.”

Pleshek is gratified that company-wide initiatives result in a high level of staff participation, especially framing houses for Habitat for Humanity.

“When you actually put up those walls together, working side by side with the actual family that will move into the Habitat house, that has just been a wonderful experience for us.”

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